Saturday, June 4, 2016

Health Before Wealth

In Slavoj Zizek's reading of Titanic, the film is not a love story. It is a film about the redemption of a bourgeois woman. Leonardo Di Caprio is not her lover, but her priest and saviour, instilling in her bloated and regimented existence some of his lower-class values of spontaneity and revelry (the real party is in steerage, you see). In the end, Kate Winslett gets the best of both worlds. Leo dies, meaning she doesn't have to live an impoverished existence with him. Instead, we see pictures of her living an affluent life but without the guilt and depression that might have ensued had she not been freed to enjoy her wealth. The problem, it turns out, was not wealth, but the fiance who would prevent her from finding satisfaction in it.

Almost 20 years later, we have a slightly new spin on this trope. I have not seen Me Before You, but I have read about it. It seems to be almost identical to Titanic in its form, though with one significant difference: one of the "lovers" is disabled. This, it seems, makes all the difference. While it is bad to be working class, it is actually worse to be rich and quadriplegic. Like Kate Winslett's Rose, Sam Claflin's Will is wealthy and suicidal. But unlike Rose, Will is beyond saving. His disability means that he is unable to enjoy his wealth, and this makes him deeply unhappy. The Jack Dawson of this film, Louise Clark, is an "eccentric" and "bubbly" working-class woman without much qualifications or job prospects. Like Will, she is in need of salvation, but unlike Will, she can actually be saved. Where Will is wealthy (good) and unhealthy (bad), Louise is poor (bad) and healthy (good). To spoil a film that should probably never be watched, the two fall in love. But what this means is that Will must take himself and his disability out of the picture if Louise is to truly find happiness (if you love someone, set them free and all that). So Will goes through with his planned assisted-suicide, but not before leaving Louise with a large inheritance. Like Rose in Titanic, Louise now has the best of both worlds. She is healthy and wealthy, and Will's tragic existence has given her a real sense of duty to make the most out of her newly-possessed privileges.

The takeaway lesson is as follows: health without riches is useless, but riches without health are equally useless, if not more so. Indeed, in the hierarchy of human existence, persons with disability apparently rank the lowest, and they ought at least to consider the possibility that they'd be better off dead. It is little wonder that this film is being protested against. This is a vile message when stated explicitly, yet it is implicitly accepted by many of us. What is at work here, theologically speaking, is idolatry. Health and Wealth are our gods. All that we do, we do for them. All that we sacrifice, we sacrifice for them. It would be a grave mistake for churches to think this idolatry is only practiced by "health and wealth" or "prosperity gospel" churches. Churches which are not temped by the the health and wealth gospel are more often than not Churches whose members have a surplus of both.

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